Dutch national manager Bert van Marwijk has quite a unique record when it comes to qualification matches. After winning all eight of Holland’s World Cup 2010 qualification matches, a feat that has never been accomplished before, he managed to win the first three Euro 2012 qualification matches too. It is certainly true that these matches were played against the lower ranked teams of the qualification group, but winning nine points against San Marino away, Finland at home and, a few days ago, Moldova away makes for a nice start. And now it’s time for the more stern opposition that Sweden was expected to be.
Sweden national manager Erik Hamren went into this match defending quite a recent record of himself too. After all, winning all of his five matches as national manager and not conceding a single goal in the past four matches sounds quite impressive. Sweden beat Hungary 2-0 and San Marino 6-0, playing both matches at home, and with both Holland and Sweden going into this match with a perfect record the battle for first place in this group seems very much on.
Missing Nigel de Jong on disciplinary grounds has brought quite a change to the Dutch playing style. Although still lined-up in a 4-2-3-1 formation, the key shift has been the playmaker role. With de Jong on board, playing alongside Mark van Bommel, two ball-winning midfielders offered a huge physical presence to the defensive midfield. One of the benefits of this choice is obviously the strengthening of the central defense, which had been an Achilles heel to Dutch teams in the years before. But there are more benefits to it. The double pivot provides cover for both full-backs to venture forward, either doubling up on the wings by joining an outside winger, or providing with to the formation in the case of inside wingers or wing playmakers.
The team of the World Cup
The way Holland’s 4-2-3-1 has been playing without Nigel de Jong is quite different it seems, based on the recent match against Moldova. With Rafael van der Vaart besides ball-winning midfielder Van Bommel the playmaker role shifts from Sneijder to Van der Vaart. Furthermore, since Van der Vaart does not offer the amount of defensive cover that de Jong does, there’s no longer a free license to bombard forward for both full-backs. In the recent World Cup, both Van der Wiel at right-back and Van Bronckhorst at left-back were heavily involved in the building of the Dutch attacks. Remember Giovanni van Bronckhorst’s strike against Uruguay, anyone? The full-backs’ attacking involvement during the World Cup was so high that at times they were even the players with the highest amount of pass attempts.
Against Moldova, Van der Vaart excelled in his deep-lying playmaking role, completing no less than 91% of 103 pass attempts. So instead of playing around the defense-minded opponent, as indicated by both full-backs making most passes during the World Cup, the build-up seems more central now. In turn, the full-back have less freedom to venture forward. This connects well with the fact that left-back Pieters offers less of an attacking presence than his right-sided colleague Van der Wiel. Playing Dirk Kuyt, a natural striker who tends to link-up with lone striker Huntelaar in the centre of the pitch, offers room for Van der Wiel to go forward. On the left side, meanwhile, the winger has to offer more width, something which Afellay certainly did against Moldova, and should first-choice winger Elia have played this might have been the case even more so.
Next up: Sweden
So, in conclusion, eliminating de Jong on disciplinary grounds presents Van Marwijk with an array of tactical shifts that connects well with his current squad. First we’ll have to see how this tactic holds against Sweden tonight, as they are expected to put more pressure on Van der Vaart in his deep-lying playmaker role. Furthermore, it is rather safe to omit some defensive stability against Moldova, but it’s interesting to see how this pans out against better opposition like Sweden.